ALL THAT JAZZ
Dec. 1, 2006 -- Jazz, as America's greatest musical art form, is about improvisation, tempo and reacting to sudden shifts in composition that take the players and their audience to uncharted sonic spaces, while at the same time maintaining enough of the original construction to hold the whole thing together.
In order to achieve this paradoxical state of structure within apparent chaos, an ensemble needs a leader capable of understanding his own strengths and weaknesses, as well as those of his band.
The Jazz, as the surprise story of the Association's opening month, are about all these things, too.
If ever there was a team in need of a turnaround, it was the Utah Jazz, one of the NBA's most consistent franchises for the previous two decades.
After making the postseason every year from 1984 to 2003, Utah lost John Stockton to retirement and Karl Malone to Hollywood and failed to make the playoffs in each of the last three seasons.
However, just as Miles Davis set the standard in 1959 with Kind of Blue and returned to form in 1969 with In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew (two rhythmically groundbreaking jazz records I recommend highly) after a 10-year stretch of mostly mediocre material, the Jazz are mounting a prolific comeback of their own.
They started the season 4-0 and followed their first loss of the season (Nov. 8 at New Jersey) by winning eight straight, sprinting to a franchise-best 12-1. The last three victories during the run included second-half comebacks of 16, 16 and 21 points, respectively. They were so hot not even 57 points from Michael Redd could stop them. In November, nothing seemed to matter.
Much of their success can be attributed to the emergence of Carlos Boozer, who is posting career highs of 22.2 ppg and 12.4 rpg, but sophomore point guard Deron Williams deserves his share of the credit, as well.
Steadily improving from his rookie campaign, Williams is averaging 16.7 points and nine assists per game, up from 10.8 and 4.5 a season ago. He and Boozer enabled Utah to flourish despite missing jack-of-all-trades forward Andrei Kirilenko for five games.
As vital as they have been, though, the real secret to this success story lies in 19-year head coach Jerry Sloan, who became the first coach to win 900 games with one team when the Jazz defeated the Raptors on Nov. 20.
Like any great band leader, Sloan has guided his players with a steady hand, instilling in them the same intensity and discipline that brought the franchise to back-to-back Finals a decade ago. His teams still play lockdown defense, and he has Williams and Boozer running the pick-and-roll like Stockton and Malone in their primes.
But Sloan has shown a penchant for improv this season, uncharacteristically playing rookies Ronnie Brewer and Paul Millsap, so far the steal of this year's draft, in big situations. Clearly, the duo is paying dividends.
At month's end, the Jazz sit atop the Western Conference at 13-4. They have positioned themselves for a return to the playoffs, and, if they get there, more than a few people will be surprised.